American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese

  • Genre
    • Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Coming of Age, Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • This book interweaves the stories of Jin, a Chinese American boy dealing with ostracism and bullying, Danny, a blonde white teen with a surreally stereotypical Chinese cousin, and the Monkey King, a hero from Chinese folklore seeking to become the equal of creator god Tze-Yo-Tzuh. All three are linked with themes about pride, identity, vanity and self-acceptance. At the end, they come together in a way that is clever, surprising and satisfying.
  • Characterization
    • The protagonists are all various types of hot messes, but you can’t help root for them anyway. You see where everyone is coming from, and want them to hurry up and learn their lesson so they can be happy.
    • Special shout out to the monk Wong Lai-Tsao. I love seeing hapless, unassuming people get a moment in the spotlight, especially when that comes from being who they are, not despite it.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s loads of fun, then surprisingly thought provoking. It’s a book I read once and thinking, “yeah, that was pretty good”, but found myself obsessing over it for years after. Like any story with a good twist, it’s highly re-readable; you will catch new things each time around.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
  • Content Warnings
    • Naturally, the main conflicts all revolve around characters overcoming stereotyping, bigotry and ostracism; apart from that, the content is all very lighthearted and tame.
  • Quotes
    • “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”
    • “You know, Jin, I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.”
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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Time of Our Lives

(sorry for the delay. I thought I’d work a half shift today, come home, do a final polish, and post it only an hour or so late. But at work things got, well, let’s just say it didn’t end up being a half shift. Again, so sorry!)

This is my fourth and last review on the topic of stewardship, so I want to emphasize that AIO loves this topic. In fact, now is a good time to explain that the more they cover a topic, the fewer episodes I end up reviewing. This and the previous mental health section are perfect illustrations of why. They covered mental health sporadically, often indirectly, and episodes sometimes contradicted each other, yet as a kid I didn’t pick up on how poorly they understand the issue. I cobbled their incoherent explanations into something that needed to be debunked later in my life. As a result, nearly every episode that touched on mental health demanded its own review. With stewardship, their position was so coherent and comprehensive that I could easily pick some representative highlights. Many episodes were, essentially, “the first story from Tales of Moderation, but as it’s own episode” or “Making the Grade, but with chores.” And many of them were great stories, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover with this series. I gotta move on sometime.

Anyway, this episode is a show within a show; an Adventures in Odyssey episode presented as an in-universe episode of Kid’s Radio. I don’t think I’ve explained Kid’s Radio before. It’s um, a radio station. In Odyssey. For kids. Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.

This Kid’s Radio special is a Twilight Zone parody, with Connie doing a rather bad female-Rod-Serling impression. It’s called the Twi-Life Zone, because it’s life lessons I guess?

We are first introduced to thirteen year old Kathy, who loves malls. LOOOOVES malls. All her spare time is spent at the mall. As she wanders with her friend Julie, they check out a piano store, where Kathy plays a piece and talks about her dreams of playing Carnegie Hall and marrying Kyle from their school. They then split up briefly, so Kathy can check on a sale that Julie isn’t interested in. When Kathy finishes and tries to find her, she instead finds a woman in her twenties who claims to be Julie. When Kathy looks in the mirror, she realizes she too has aged to twenty-three.

That’s right, it was a tiiiimme waaaaarp!!!!!

Julie is getting married, and Kathy, having been thirteen five minutes ago, had no idea. Julie isn’t surprised, and snidely responds that she sent the invite to the mall. That’s not how that works, Julie. Not unless Kathy manages a store there or something, which, given that the whole moral is how she’s wasting her time at the mall, is probably not the case.

From here, the story becomes fairly repetitive. Kathy tries to do things she took for granted, like play the piano, and finds her adult self has forgotten them. She encounters people she knew, barely recognizes them, and finds they’ve moved on with their lives. In every case, the cause for her loss keeps returning to the mall. She spends all her time there, and so she has lost anything else that might matter to her.

The idea of time travelling as a metaphor for time wasting is cool, but to work, Kathy should only encounter things that she could have lost either by time travelling, or by repeatedly choosing a fun but unproductive activity over things with more lasting consequences.  Some problems Kathy encounters fit this. She has lost touch with her best friend, doesn’t know her baby nephew’s name, and she can no longer play the piano. On the other hand, a good chunk of the story is spent establishing that her family moved in the past ten years and she’s forgotten where they, or she, now live. That’s horrifying, but not really a “wasted your time in the mall” problem. It’s an “I was involuntarily sucked into a wormhole” problem. Then there’s the fact that her crush ended up marrying somebody else; hate to break it to you Kathy, but that probably would have happened anyway. At the same time, she has up to date information on every sale in a ten mile radius, and the exact fabric content of a dress that adult Kathy bought. So, does she only know what she knew at age 13, or does she also have the information of adult Kathy? If the former, how does she know exactly where tennis shoes are 40% off, and if the latter, why the fuck can’t she find her own house?

Additionally, we are told she is obsessed with the mall, but not shown that she is neglecting everything else. We literally see (well, hear) her practice piano in the piano store, and she does a damn good job. Obsession alone is not evidence of wasted time; everybody needs down time, as other AIO episodes acknowledge.

Kathy story ends abruptly, and we turn to the story of Jeremy, chronic watcher of television. One day, the police break in. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, TVs are now illegal, due to their inherent time sucking properties. The cops lecture him, confiscate his TV and suggest that he go read a book or something.

“Go read a book” is such a cliche, and when you think about it, is it inherently more constructive? I suppose a even a bad book demands some level of thought and focus, while you can mindlessly flip through channels, not even fully absorbing the content. Plus, you get fewer product placements in a book. That said, there are books that are trashy, ill informed wastes of time, and shows that are truly thought provoking and artistic. Is a book really inherently better than a TV show of similar quality? Or do we just dump on TV because it is new? Fun fact; novels were once considered lurid wastes of time, and dangerous to a person’s mental stability. Especially when women read them.

Anyway Jeremy gives up reading after about one sentence, goes looking for something else to do, and finds an old mini television in the garage. He turns it on, and it works okay. But the police get a random hunch that he’s got another set, double back at the exact right time and catch him. Also somehow they know to check the garage first, even though last time they burst into his living room. Because…..?

Also, where the heck are Jeremy’s parents in all this? There is a line between exaggerated metaphor and weird shit pulled from your ass. And if you look behind you, right now, you might even be able to see it.

Anyway, Jeremy takes off, carrying the TV, with the cops in hot pursuit. He, a kid who rarely leaves his couch, and is lugging an old appliance, manages to outpace several adults trained in foot pursuit, and he is only foiled in his escape by the random appearance of a cliff.

Obviously, his first move is to throw the TV over it. Cause, you know, he loves it so much he can’t bear to see them take it? And destroying it is better?

One cop’s immediate response is a dismayed “there goes the evidence!” Hey, dipshit, if you need it that bad, there’s probably recognizably TV-ish fragments around there somewhere. Plus, you broke into a private home without a warrant, terrorized an unsupervised child, and then went back to do it a second time on a whim. I’m pretty sure you’re living in a dystopic police state.

Anyway, they then attempt to arrest him, and he jumps. Off the cliff. Because TV.

You know, every consequence of his bad habit has come directly from the fact of it being illegal. If he were just sitting on his own, he might arguably be making bad choices for his own health, but he wouldn’t be choosing between the prison industrial complex and a literal cliff. Plus, we can clearly see that the cops don’t actually have a workable plan for dealing with Jeremy’s problem. They just take away this thing he’s become dependent on. Then when he fails to immediately adapt to this TV-less world, they hound him, a kid in an emotionally fucked up state. All without bothering to wonder what so messed up this kid’s life that he ended up in this state of dependence in the first place.

Lane must now pause, take a deep breathe, remember this is not the episode to discuss his views on the war on drugs. Breathe in. Breathe out. Save it for another rant. Okay, I’m good now.

The cops continue their “magically knowing things” streak by assuming that he survived the fall and will be making it for the state lines. Apparently TV watching is still legal in neighboring states. They mount a full-scale manhunt for this one kid, and when they find him, the main cop rappels down from a friggin’ helicopter, where he… lets Jeremy go. Not because he’s realized the absurdity of this law, but because living as a TV-obsessed person will punish him more than they ever could.

whut

what?

WHAAAAAAAAATTTTT!

THEN WHY THE HELL DO YOU HAVE THIS LAW IN THE FIRST PLACE!

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK??!!

Yeah, that line of ridiculousness is not even visible from here.

Both protagonists then meet up as adults in a Time Wasters Anonymous meeting to talk about how they need help. Then, instead of demonstrating a story arc where they use therapy to learn how to prioritize better and work on their problems, the Twi-life zone conceit is suddenly revealed, and they are sent back in time to change their child selves. They find their younger selves hanging out in the appliance section of a department store, where Kathy can shop while Jeremy watches TV. So, in order to change their pasts and save their futures, they run up and yell about how they must have “something more constructive to do.”

Shockingly, a cliched line that never works when actual parents say it also doesn’t work when utter strangers say it. Even when those utter strangers accost you in a mall claiming they’re your future selves. Kathy and Jeremy scoff and leave, while adult Kathy and Jeremy are left crying that they are trapped in the Twi-life Zone foooorrreeeevvveeeerrrr!

No, like, literally. They say that, with the long drawn out echoy wail on “forever.” It’s bad.

There are obvious problems with this one, but the biggest one is that they are using circumstances outside the protagonist’s control to demonstrate a problem that is all about choices. Kathy didn’t choose to enter a wormhole, and Jeremy didn’t choose to ban TV. We are forced to take the narrator’s word for it that they would suffer with or without those things; their obsessions are told, not shown.

For all that, the moral isn’t bad. It’s more just lazy. Obviously, you can waste your time on things that are fun but pointless. Obviously there are things that are difficult in the short term, but more rewarding in the long run, and it can be easy to understand that, but much harder to choose, moment by moment, to do the harder thing.

Unfortunately, the writers of this story seem to have just assumed that, since their premise was obviously correct, they could throw just anything together and create a good episode. They didn’t. They really didn’t.

Final Ratings

Best Part: No truly good moments. Most scenes self-sabotage in one way or another. The only real exception is the moment where Kathy’s old piano teacher proves she can’t play anymore. They successfully made their point, and gave it some authentic emotional impact, which shows what this episode could have been if, ironically, they had put more time and effort into it. 

Worst Part: Why the fucking hell would you go through all that just to let him go?!?!?!?!

Story Rating: Oh god. D-

Moral Rating: If they didn’t repeatedly state that this is about wasting time, one could be forgiven for assuming this was an episode about how TV and malls are inherently evil. As it is, their intent was made extremely obvious, so I can hold off talking about that problem for now. C-

Final Ratings For Stewardship Topic

Best Episode: Tales of Moderation

Worst Episode: Time of Our Lives

Good Things They Said: Don’t make money and material goods the center of your life. Seek a good work/life balance. Realize that your goals will require work to accomplish, and not all of that work will be fun. If you spend all your time doing things you want to do now, you miss out on future opportunities. Do take breaks and take care of yourself, but don’t be tempted into an easy route that will end up hurting you or someone else. 

Bad Things They Said: Honestly, there wasn’t anything I would consider bad, just times that the good ideas listed above weren’t handled very well. I reviewed what I thought were their three greatest episodes and one of their worst, but they fill the full spectrum between these extremes. 

Things They Failed to Address: So, in right-wing conservative world, there’s a common assumption that the problems of the poor can be solved simply by giving them better values and shit. There’s no admission that there may be systemic issues of inequality that need to be addressed on a social level; that’s a thought that at best doesn’t occur to them, and at worst is rejected outright. This show doesn’t do anything to correct that. 

But honestly, there’s a difference between a set of values being bad, and simply not being a panacea. There weren’t any episodes, as far as the ones I had access to, that directly blamed poor people for their poverty. There are other problems with how the show handles social and political problems, but those are better discussed elsewhere. Like in my next section, for example!

Overall Rating: I want to give this a full A, but episodes like Time of Our Lives do exist, and lazy writing in an episode about personal responsibility irks me so much I’m tempted to give them an A-, just for spite. What do you think, award winning comedy Community?

Okay, fine. I’m keeping the D and C minuses above, cause those were super earned, but the overall topic gets a full A.

 

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, by Joy Harjo

The Woman Who Fell From The Sky

  • Genre
    • Poetry, Free Verse
  • Plot Summary
    • A collection of poems about heritage, pain, personal growth, love and hope in the face of grief. 
  • Character Empathy
    • Interesting. You see mostly people in fragmented moments and sideways glances, but these still evoke a strong sense of personality, perhaps because they capture the contradictions, frailties and dilemmas that make up real humans.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The first thing that came to mind is that this book is like water. I love wading into big cool lakes, finding an open space and just floating in the middle; this book gave me that feeling. It’s a force of nature, but gently immersive. It’s dynamic, but peaceful. The sentences are deliberately long, so you get a little lost in the hops from concept to concept, but the sense of an emotion or idea completely captures you. It’s a book to reread and reread, not so much to understand it better, as to understand how you understood it so well the first time around.
    • There’s also a permeating, thunderingly fierce sense of love. She talks often about the power of love and kindness; not mere civility, but the kind of determined, transformative love that shows up in small moments, but takes real courage to show.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The end of each poem has notes on the inspiration, whether historical or personal, and extra little reflections. I love it when authors do that. 
    • Look, this is a book of absurdly pretty poems. Do you like absurdly pretty poems? Ones where you’ll read it and totally lose track of your surroundings, because you’re just dwelling on the pure, distilled majesty that is being fed to your eyeballs? Then you’ll like this book. What else do you need?
  • Content Warnings
    • Some allusions to abuse and oppression, but nothing graphic.
  • Quotes
    • “If we cry more tears we will ruin the land with salt; instead let’s praise that which would distract us with despair. Make a song for death, a song with yellow teeth and bad breath. For loneliness, the house guest who eats everything and refuses to leave. A song for bad weather so we can stand together under our leaking roof, and make a terrible music with our wise and ragged bones.”
    • “Every day is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff.”
    • “Truth can appear as disaster in a land of things unspoken.”
    • “(When a people institute a bureaucratic department to service justice then be suspicious. False justice is not justified by massive structure, just as the sacred is not confineable to buildings constructed for the purpose of worship.)
    • “Her mother has business in the house of chaos. She is a prophet disguised as a young mother who is looking for a job.”
    • I’m sorry, said the house who sat down by the man who’d taken refuge in the street. The inhabitants could be heard disappearing through aluminum walls as the boy bent to the slap and beating by the father who was charged with loving and nothing in him could answer to that angel. I could not protect you, cried the house: Though the house gleamed with appliances. Though the house was built with postwar money and hope. Though the house was their haven after the war. Though the war never ended.”
    • “When I hear crows talking, death is a central topic, Death often occurs in clusters, they say. They watch the effect like a wave that moves out from the center of the question. The magnetic force is attractive and can make you want to fly to the other side of the sky.”
    • All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.”

The Tell-Tale Brain, by V. S. Ramachandran

The Tell Tale Brain

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Neuroscience, Behavioral Science
  • Summary
    • A world renowned neuroscientist ponders the biological roots of human nature.
  • Information
    • God, what isn’t here? Maybe it will be easier if I just give some of the chapter titles.
    • Phantom Limbs and Plastic Brains
    • Seeing and Knowing
    • The Power of Babble – The Evolution of Language
    • An Ape With a Soul – How Introspection Evolved
    • Loud Colors and Hot Babes – Synesthesia.
    • Yeah, that’s just a sampling. He goes into everything. EVERYTHING.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The quotes below give a good sense of his prose style. V. S. Ramachandran has a strong sense of the poetic and the philosophical and he weaves them together with practical, empirical data to create some of the most beautiful musings on the nature of humanity.
    • He avoids one of the most common pitfalls of people writing about psychology and neuroscience; he admits that the information is actively evolving. Human behavior brings in a whole new host of variables that are hard to control for, as well as a whole new minefield of experimenter biases. I’ve read too many books and articles that say, “this particular hormone did this in that test and this in that other, therefore it definitely one hundred percent explains why teenage girls talk on the phone all the time.” Yeah, that’s a reference to an actual book I read. Ugh. Anyway, back to the positives. In this book, if he says something is well-established, it’s because it’s actually well established. Other times, he goes into further studies we should do, possible alternative explanations, and the questions we still have. Where others plop down and try to insist that where we are is where the answers are, he gets you excited about the vast unexplored horizon ahead.
    • The above is especially a relief when he starts talking about issues like autism, where so many are proud to announce their theories as if they should be crowned Ultimate Solver of All The Things before they retire to a castle on their own private island. V. S. Ramachandran has theories and presents evidence, but he has the guts to admit there’s a lot of research left to do.
    • He’s also got a wonderful gift for making the technical understandable. Even someone fairly new to the subject material can follow him easily.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • His theories on the roots and evolution of aesthetics are absolutely fascinating and have kept me thinking for years.
    • So much psychological and neuroscientific writing ignores the most scientifically fascinating part of humanity; the fact that we can vary in the strangest, most unpredictable, most counterintuitive ways. It creates a reductive look at human behavior and leaves people out. V. S. Ramachandran takes the opposite approach. He actively embraces humanities little varieties and quirks. He covers apotemnophilia, synaesthesia, theories on biological causes for being transgender (I really enjoyed this part) and more. Even where I disagree, or think he’s only got part of the picture, I love that he sees those things as not just part of humanity, but essential to fully understanding it.
    • There’s just too much in this book. It’s fun and fascinating and beautiful and if you like science you should read it.
  • Content Warnings
    • Not applicable
  • Quotes
    • “What do we mean by “knowledge” or “understanding”? And how do billions of neurons achieve them? These are complete mysteries. Admittedly, cognitive neuroscientists are still very vague about the exact meaning of words like “understand,” “think,” and indeed the word “meaning” itself.”
    • “Yet as human beings we have to accept-with humility-that the question of ultimate origins will always remain with us, no matter how deeply we understand the brain and the cosmos that it creates.”
    • “How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, it the greatest mystery of all.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Making the Grade

This episode opens with Lawrence Hodges making an invisibility potion to escape the evil agents of Destructo, which to the uninitiated looks an awful lot like hiding in his closet to avoid science homework. His mother, being one of those uninitiated, says that until he does his homework he won’t go to the Barclay family’s party. This is enough to make Lawrence abandon his top secret mission and participate in the reality occupied by the rest of us. Albeit reluctantly.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Lawrence yet, but that paragraph tells you pretty much everything you need to know.

Lawrence is excited mainly so he can hang out with Jimmy Barclay, his babysitter/cool older friend, but the party is really more of a celebration for the parents. George Barclay has recently been accepted into seminary school, to fulfill his dream of being a pastor. Mary Barclay is pregnant with their third child. Everyone is excited for the new family member. They’re less enthusiastic about her cravings for anchovies on ice cream, mashed potatoes topped with caramel popcorn and ketchup frosted chocolate cake.

In the wake of all these changes, Jimmy is thinking about what he wants to do with his life, especially now that career day is coming up. It’s going to be a big deal. He’s going to fill out questionnaires, meet with counselors, and potentially even get to take a field trip. As he has been looking over his options, he has found himself obsessively returning to the idea of being a paramedic. He loves the thought of being first in line in the fight to save somebody’s life.

George encourages him, as does Lawrence, when he finally gets there. Granted, Lawrence doesn’t actually know what a paramedic does, but he figures that if it’s something Jimmy wants to do, it’s automatically awesome. Lawrence, by the way, wants to work for the NSA and the FBI, as a double agent. I don’t think anyone has explained to him what a double agent actually is.

While Jimmy meets with the counselor, Lawrence gets into another battle with his mother over science homework. With the lure of the Barclay’s party gone, she is forced to rely on the old “no TV until it’s done” game. Which, of course, is easily thwarted by watching TV when she’s not around. So she tries for making homework a little more fun. What if he’s a world famous spy trying to smuggle formulas out of the enemy countries?

“Nice try Mom, but I already tried that. World famous spies only need to know how to get the formulas out, not why E=MC squared.”

Yeah, she really shouldn’t have tried to out-imagine Lawrence. What makes this all worse is that she’s a teacher herself. Unfortunately she teaches history, so she can’t counter his defend Einstein’s formula with a description of spacetime itself bending to preserve the speed of light. So she plays the Mom card instead.

Willing to concede the battle, but not the war, Lawrence goes to enlist Jimmy’s help. He finds Jimmy practicing CPR on his sister’s doll. The counselor loved his idea, is taking him on one of those cool field trips to meet professionals in his field of interest. He’s nervous, and wants to impress his paramedic mentor with first aid knowledge. So on the whole, Jimmy is a bit distracted right now. But he can relate to Lawrence’s detestation of science, and promises that, after he’s done academically overachieving, he’ll help Lawrence underachieve.

So he goes to meet the paramedic, and finds the job as cool as he thought, but then gets a nasty shock. Turns out, science is relevant to the medical field. Whoda thunk it? To impress this on him, the paramedic delivers rapid fire questions about hypertension, conversion rates, and second vs third degree burns, barely giving Jimmy time to realize he doesn’t know before hitting him with another question. The paramedic emphasizes that he doesn’t want Jimmy to be discouraged. But he does want Jimmy to understand that, as a paramedic, his ability to recall this information instantly will be the difference between someone else’s life or death.

This is a completely fair thing to do, but it does mean Jimmy comes home pretty depressed. George gives him a talk. As a new seminary student, he can relate to not loving his studies. He is taking eschatology, hermeneutics and Ancient Greek, and can barely get through the titles of his classes without wanting to fall asleep. But he’s going to do it, because he wants to be the best pastor he can. Even as he says this, George admits that he feels like he’s being a bad role model.

“I feel like I’ve just broken one of the cardinal rules of parenting… you know, the one that says ‘Thou shalt not admit disliking school.'”

Jimmy has the opposite view, however. A moment of vulnerable honesty has had more impact on him than years of rote lines about the value of education. And it inspires him to go be a better role model himself.

As the rules of narrative progression dictate, he goes to see Lawrence just in time to witness another homework argument. His mother has reached the point of threatening to sell the TV and anything else fun. Lawrence counters that he would rather have splinters pushed under his toenails and be covered in killer bees than do any more homework. She calmly says “that can be arranged.” Yeah, she’s all out of fucks.

Jimmy dashes Lawrence’s hopes of reinforcement. He admits that all this boring crap (seriously, someone get them some Neil DeGrasse Tyson lectures!) is important after all. He’s not willing to enable Lawrence’s procrastination. He is, however, willing to give some free tutoring. He’s got catching up to do, and teaching Lawrence is probably a decent way to give himself a refresher. Lawrence is torn. On the one hand, the agents of Destructo are, at this very moment, gaining the advantage while he and his elders are all distracted by such trivial matters. On the other hand, in his world Jimmy is basically God. In the end, hero worship wins the day. Jimmy has probably spared us all an annoying Broadchurch “how could such a horrifying child murder happen in a swell town like this” storyline.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Once again, I love George’s talk. The decision to make this a moment of empathy rather than a state-the-theme lecture was a good one; the theme is definitely there, but the scene has authenticity and catharsis that those scenes can so easily lack.

Worst Part: There’s a scene I left out, just before George and Jimmy’s talk, where Jimmy talks to his sister Donna about careers that wouldn’t require doing well in some kind of academia. They settle on politics. Seriously? You don’t need to study for politics? Look, I know politicians are eternally fun to dump on, but this kind of thinking how we get Trump and Kim Jong-Un playing “I’m not touching you” with nukes.

Although, technically they’ve both got high ranking jobs in the field, so maybe she has a point. The distant rattling you hear is my nervous laughter in the face of the Apocalypse.

Story Rating: Fun and funny. A little obvious where it’s going, but executed well enough to make up for that. A

Moral Rating: It follows the same pattern of common sense expressed clearly. Gets it’s message across while still having fun and not being condescending. A+

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

falling-in-love-with-hominids

  • Genre
    • Short stories, Folklore, Urban Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Eighteen short stories from one of my favorite authors. The topics wander from apocalypse to mourning to falling in love to loving yourself to discovering a giant flying elephant in your apartment. What they have in common is that they are all amazing. 
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s Nalo Hopkinson. If you don’t both like and relate to at least 90% of the characters, you’re probably a sociopath.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The stories cover a wide range of emotions. There’s funny, sad, scary, trippy, wistful, triumphant… what they all have in common is the characteristic weird and fun originality that you get from Nalo Hopkinson every time.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of the creepiest werewolf stories I’ve ever read (and you know how I feel about werewolves). 
    • A giant flying elephant. Did I mention that already?
    • Sometimes the protagonist is queer in a “this is one of several things about the person and not the most important thing at all” way.
    • A cherry tree who is really into body positivity and women power.
    • Look, every story here has multiple cool shiny things, and I don’t want to spoil them all because it is really fun to go in blind and discover them. Just go read it!
  • Content Warnings
    • You’ll be fine
  • Quotes
    • (From the Intro) “I’ve learned I can trust that humans in general will strive to make things better for themselves and their communities. Not all of us. Not always in principled, loving, or respectful ways. Often the direct opposite, in fact. But we’re all on the same spinning ball of dirt, trying to live as best we can. Yes, that’s almost overweeningingly Pollyanna-ish, despite the fact that sometimes I just need to shake my fist at a mofo.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Easy Money

Up next in the discussion of stewardship, we have the epic saga of two kids who reeeeally want to play street hockey.

Sam Johnson and Brian “Butch” Evans are looking at gear and finding out that quality sports equipment is expensive. Neither of them think their parents will help, but Sam suggests taking on odd jobs. Butch vows that he’ll do whatever it takes. Guess which one quits after their first gig?

In all fairness, they spend two hours scrubbing the floor of a mechanic’s garage, who says the cleaner they get it the more they’ll be paid, but when it’s paycheck time it’s suddenly a flat three dollars an hour rate. This is from 1995, so that’s maybe not quite as bad as it would be now, but it’s still a shit deal. Especially since the equipment they are saving for is apparently over $50.

Sam, who has zero negotiating skills, accepts. Butch storms out, and on his way home he meets Mac. Now, in this episode, Sam has a normal person name and generic midwestern accent, Butch has a tough guy nickname but a generic accent, and Mac has the tough guy nickname and a bad New York accent. So you can pretty much figure out the morality alignment right there. Mac hears about Butch’s money troubles, and tells him he can get money without lifting a finger. He bets Butch he can make a tough jump shot, fails, and hands over a dollar, and a business card.

Basically, Mac’s a bookie.

You know, AIO and it’s Christian ilk is full of characters trying to corrupt our protagonists, so as to make conservative fundie kids feel properly paranoid about the secular world. But hey, at least this version of the trope has an actual motive.

Anyway, the mechanic offers Sam a steady job. All he has to do is get up at 5:30 am so he can bike over to the garage, scrub floors for an hour, accept three dollars for his trouble, and then make it to school having already exhausted himself. What a swell and non-exploitative guy. Sam asks his parents’ permission, and after talking to him about making sure it doesn’t take too much out of him, and being willing to stop if he can’t handle it, they say it’s okay. I’d complain about this, but you know, I do think kids need to take risks. I’d call it irresponsible parenting if they weren’t keeping any kind of eye on him, but since that’s not the case, I think this is awesome. Plus, I’m pretty sure they don’t know how badly he’s being compensated. Man, I know it was the nineties, but that still bothers me.

From here, the progression of the characters is easy to foresee. Butch takes bigger and bigger risks, but as he keeps winning, he has no intention of quitting, even after he can afford the hockey equipment. And Sam, well, there’s this one scene where he’s reminded that he promised to put together a booth for some charity carnival. He tries to sit down and think of ideas but can’t stay awake. In the end, he shows up with a garbage can and a bunch of balls for people to toss in, and if they succeed they get to pick from an exciting box of junk Sam could grab out of his room. Mr. Barclay gives it a go and tries so hard to be polite and seem so thrilled to have won a pencil. With teeth marks on it. By throwing a ball about two feet. Meanwhile Sam is such a zombie he wouldn’t notice if Gordon Ramsey himself showed up.

And yet, when the mechanic offers to let him come in even earlier, Sam says yes. This time he doesn’t check with his parents, but just agrees to wake up at 4:30, in the interest of getting his hockey gear a few weeks earlier. No doubt, despite protesting that Butch is earning his money the wrong way, he is irked that Butch beat him to the games. But he doesn’t keep this up for long before his father catches him sneaking out. Instead of forcing him to quit, Sam’s dad talks him through the things he has jeopardized for this job. He’s falling asleep in school and church, he’s risking his health, and he isn’t able to fulfill any other responsibilities. There’s a difference between honestly earning something, and making a job your only priority. Sam decides that, after today, he will quit the job, and go back to after school odd jobs.

Butch’s overconfidence in his hot streak finally starts to kick him in the pants. It’s ambiguous whether he is honestly losing, or whether Mac fed him easy wins until he was hooked enough to bet big and lose big. Regardless, after cleaning him out of his savings, Mac tantalizes Butch with the huge stakes in the upcoming Odyssey/Connellsville game. Butch sells his baseball card collection to get into the pot, and is still short of the minimum bet. He borrows 50 bucks from Mac, and promptly loses it.

And what ironic consequence does this episode have in store? Well, Mac strongarms him into giving up the hockey equipment, of course. Butch loses his taste for gambling, and joins Sam once again on his odd jobs.

All of this hits a good balance between having a clear moral, but willing to avoid a single, simple state the theme moment. It explores a few different nuances of the idea of earning money responsibly; avoiding scams, recognizing when you’re being played, putting in honest work, not shortchanging other priorities in the single minded pursuit of one goal. One thing I like about morality tales with a bit more scope is that they encourage a person to think in terms of overall balance. When AIO tells one story with a single target theme, then another story with a single target theme, I feel like they’ve expressed two ideas, and I want to criticize them for the third and fourth and fifth ideas that they have neglected. When they acknowledge in one story that there’s a need to look out for multiple wrong paths and pitfalls, they’re suggesting that the world doesn’t always offer a single clear path, and that you have too look at all the variables and alternatives. They’re encouraging analysis of a problematic human tendency, not rigid adherence to a single maxim.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I really love the consistent emphasis from Sam’s Dad on independence. So often AIO parents are little autocrats, and in the real world this creates adults who don’t know how to think for themselves. Sam, on the other hand, gets a balance of guidance and autonomy, and I think that’s great. 

Worst Part: I can usually think of something, but I’m honestly drawing a blank.

Story Rating: Events move at a nice engaging pace, there’s a good use of humor, it all comes to a satisfying end… Yeah, good job on this one. A+

Moral Rating: Good ideas explored with common sense. A+

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

  • Genre
    • Nonfiction
  • Summary
    • A mortician describes her early years of working at a crematory, blending her experiences in the industry with insights into the human struggle to deal with death. 
  • Information
    • There’s a little of everything in here. There’s biology, history, anthropology, economics, and a fair bit of practical philosophy. She explores what actually happens when the body dies, how our attitudes towards death have changed, how different cultures around the world deal with death, and what our knowledge of our own imminent demise does to make us human beings.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • If you’ve watched her Youtube channel, you’re probably well prepared for Caitlin Doughty’s style. She’s funny and poignant all at once, mixing wry observations and weird anecdotes with some of the most beautifully existential musings you’ll ever hear. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I love her descriptions of the people she meets. She can simultaneously make you smile at someone’s human foibles and deeply empathize with them as people going through one of the hardest experiences a human will have to bear; burying a loved one. 
    • I also love when she talks about non-Western attitudes towards death. There’s a bit where she describes the cosmology and beliefs of a certain cannibalistic society, and what that act actually means to them, and soon I was thinking, “aw, that’s really sweet.” I got teary when I heard about how the colonialists came in and made them stop. Stupid imperialists.
    • If this book has a main goal, it’s to make you think more complexly about death and how we deal with it, and to see how our society in particular has gotten seriously bad at providing ways for people to cope. I keep wanting to say something like, “this book isn’t for everyone, but if it sounds like something you’d be into, you’re definitely right.” But I also want to recommend this to people who wouldn’t think they’d be into it. I want this book to be read by people who are afraid of death, afraid of thinking about it, afraid of examining their reaction to it. I feel like, with all the disturbing elements, this book will make you realize that you can see the realities of death and, afterwards, you’ll still be okay. Death is inevitable. It doesn’t have to be terrifying.
  • Content Warnings
    • Descriptions of decomposition and dead bodies. How they die is mentioned but not generally described in detail. 
    • She also reflects on her own mental health experiences. Some of this might be triggering, especially for those with a history of suicide.
  • Quotes
    • “Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”
    • “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.”
    • “The great triumph (or horrible tragedy, depending on how you look at it) of being human is that our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to understand our mortality. We are, sadly, self-aware creatures. Even if we move through the day finding creative ways to deny our mortality, no matter how powerful, loved, or special we may feel, we know we are ultimately doomed to death and decay. This is a mental burden shared by precious few other species on Earth.”
    • “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

AIO Post Delayed

I fucked up. While I was working on the next review I realized it didn’t belong in the stewardship theme, but another category entirely. Naturally, I realized this when it was too late to start another blog.

So, no post today, but there will be one next week to make up for it, then one the week after so we will be back on schedule. Sorry everybody, and thanks for your patience!

A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Memoir
  • Summary
    • Ishmael Beah takes us through the loss of his home during the wars in Sierre Leone, his recruitment by the army to become a child soldier, and his eventual rescue and rehabilitation.
  • Information
    • I was scared to read this book. The idea of forcing children to do your violence for you seems worse to me than killing them. I couldn’t imagine, if I was taught to kill as little kid, how I could ever go back to being a remotely functional human being. I was terrified to be in the mind of somebody who had gone through this. That same fear is what drove me to try it. I had to know what this is really like. 
    • I was wrong, of course. Ishmael Beah did become a functional human being. More than that, an extraordinary one. He found family, friends, redemption and purpose. I’ve always been someone who wanted to believe in transformation, in transcending even the most impossible circumstances. He doesn’t sugar coat that process. He is honest about how hard it was, and how some of his friends didn’t make it out.
    • This book taught me more about humanity than any ten psychology textbooks.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Strangely beautiful. Ishmael Beah is a person of incredible hope, perception and appreciation for the little things. He’s a music lover and a loyal friend. These things kept him alive, and it seems important to him to convey not just the bad of his life, but the good, and the way that even when those good things were incredibly small, they could mean everything.
    • This book skips directly from his life before being caught up in the army to the day he was rescued and began his rehabilitation. His boy soldier days are told in flashback, concurrently with his recovery. That was a mercy; I don’t think I could have gotten through it if there had been page after page of unrelieved battle.
    • Also, it seems to reflect how he himself perceived it. Any time they weren’t training or fighting, the soldiers got the children high on drugs and plopped them in front of a movie screen; usually something violent like Rambo. The days of actual fighting were a blur until therapy began.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Beah is just a great storyteller. There are so many little scenes that stuck in my mind, because he tells them so well.
  • Content Warnings
    • There is incredible violence here, though not always where you’d expect it. He tends to skim and spare us the gory battles, but preserve smaller moments, like the times before his soldier days when villagers would beat his friends out of their homes, just because they had learned to fear all strangers, even young boys. This has the effect of letting you understand the depth of the ugliness of their world, without drowning you in it. He is not writing a slasher film. His goal is not to shock and disgust you. His goal is to make you understand how someone can survive something so terrible.
  • Quotes
    • “Some nights the sky wept stars that quickly floated and disappeared into the darkness before our wishes could meet them. ”
    • “When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.”
    • “I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end…”
    • “…children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance.”